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Canadian immigrants create multiple senses of belonging

by Juanita Bawagan Nov 17 / 16
NewsIdeas_Immigration_Banner-1280x430 Photo credit: iStock

If you were to map out where immigrants arrived in Canada from, the net would spread across the globe. These connections to Canada and more than 100 countries are essential to immigrants’ cultural identity and, as new research shows, their health and happiness.

A study based on Statistics Canada’s 2013 General Social Survey found that 93 per cent of immigrants had a strong sense of belonging to Canada. Furthermore, a connection to their home country didn’t prevent them from feeling a strong connection to Canada but led to a higher rating of well-being.

“When people have this double sense of who they are … the most satisfactory possible outcome is when you maintain this,” says John W. Berry (Queen’s University), a psychologist and an advisor with CIFAR’s Social Interactions, Identity & Well Being program.

Statistician and Associate Fellow Grant Schellenberg (Statistics Canada) based the survey on Berry’s ideas after meeting him through a program committee. Berry and the third team member, sociologist Feng Hou (University of Victoria), have also published a new paper on immigrants’ well-being in Canadian Psychology.

FIGURE 1: Intercultural Strategies in Ethnocultural Groups and Expectations in the Larger Society

According to Berry’s framework, respondents can use four different ways to adapt to their new society (on the left): high sense of belonging to both countries (integration); high for Canada and low for source country (assimilation); low for Canada and high for source country (separation); and low for both (marginalization). The same framework can be used to describe the public attitudes and policies of the larger society (on the right).

The majority of immigrants (69 per cent) felt a strong connection to both countries (that is they seek integration). They also scored higher for life satisfaction and mental health. Immigrants who assimilated tended to come from countries with lower levels of civil liberty and life satisfaction. Some also immigrated at a younger age or had spent more time in Canada. Those with a strong source-country belonging were older, came from richer countries and faced more perceived discrimination. The ‘marginalized’ group represented 4 per cent and often included spouses or dependants who were unemployed or had a low income.

Berry says both the study and his upcoming paper show that Canada should continue to encourage the integration method by “letting people know that they’re welcome to be culturally who they are and taking steps to remove the barriers to equal participation.”

He says he hopes the research sends a message to countries like Germany who say multiculturalism has failed. He says some European countries accept immigrants without making room for them to participate in the larger society.

Berry is a leading expert in acculturation psychology and he says the study’s findings follow a global pattern where immigrants do better when they integrate into a culture. In 2006, he published a paper which found the connection in immigrant youth who settled in 13 countries.

Berry says the next step for researchers is to take Statistics Canada’s facts and figures and bring in the individual immigrant experience.

“Surveys give you a big picture but you need to get into community settings. We need to unpackage what’s going on here,” he says.